How Jayalalithaa went from Ammu to Tamil Nadu's Amma

VaasanthiDec 05, 2016 | 15:43

How Jayalalithaa went from Ammu to Tamil Nadu's Amma

Ammu was less than two years old when they brought her father Jayaram home, dead. That dark, sad night remains vivid still in Jayalalithaa’s memory, haunting her at times of despair throughout her turbulent life. A life that began with extraordinary beauty and brilliance and was then suddenly tossed into a rough ocean where demons of various hues lurked, turning the innocent little Ammu into Amma, a woman of steel.


After her husband’s death, Jayaram’s widow Veda had no option but to move with her two little children, her son Pappu and her daughter Ammu – everyone at home called Jayalalithaa by that pet name – to her father’s house in Bangalore.

Rangaswamy Iyengar, a Brahmin hailing originally from Srirangam in Tamil Nadu, settled in Bangalore when he got a modest job at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The family was known for its good looks and very fair skin. He had three very pretty daughters, Veda, Ambuja and Padma, and a son, Srinivasan.

It was a typical orthodox, conservative Brahmin middle-class household with its daily rituals and prayers diligently performed by Rangaswamy Iyengar and his wife, Kamalamma.

The young and beautiful Veda, eager to provide for her children, took up a secretarial job at the Income Tax Office to ease the additional financial burden on her father. Soon, however, she realised that on her meagre earnings she could provide her children with no more than the bare necessities.

That she was an actress’s daughter gave Jayalalithaa an added aura of glamour.

Then Kempraj Urs, a Kannada film producer, spotted Veda and was struck by her beauty. He wanted to cast her in his new film. When he came to ask her father’s permission, a furious Iyengar sent him away.


Veda’s youngest sister, Padma, was still studying in college. The other sister, Ambuja, was a rebel. She became an air hostess and the horrified Iyengar promptly declared that his second daughter was dead.

Ambuja was undaunted. She took to acting in films, changed her name to Vidhyavathi and set up house in Chennai. Ambuja asked Veda to come and stay with her, so that her children could go to a better school. It was an offer Veda could not resist, and she and her children moved to Ambuja’s house.

The children were put in school, but the producers who came to meet Vidhyavathi found that Veda too had film star looks. They persuaded her to become an actor and, seeing what a comfortable life her sister led, Veda decided that that was the only way she could become prosperous enough to give her children a good life. Kempraj Urs again offered her a role and soon Veda, now renamed Sandhya, became a busy star.

A new phase in Ammu’s life, marked by turbulent upheavals, was about to begin.

Lonely childhood

Sandhya soon realised that it was quite impossible to take care of the children with her busy acting schedule, so she sent her children back to her parents’ house in Bangalore. Little Ammu yearned constantly for her mother.


The children would eagerly wait for Sandhya’s brief visits, when she would arrive laden with gifts and sweets. Both children loved reading, and she bought them loads of story books, to distract them from crying when she left for Chennai.

Ammu settled into her new school in Bangalore, Bishop Cotton, where she spent four years. Then came another upheaval. Their aunt Padma, who used to take care of Ammu and Pappu, got married and moved away, so Sandhya decided to bring her children back to Chennai.

Jayalalithaa was thrilled to be with her mother again. But she soon realised that Sandhya was busier than ever, and had little time to spend with them. The longing for her mother’s company never left Jayalalithaa.

She was ten when she joined the prestigious Church Park Convent in Chennai. Excellent at her studies, and with beautiful manners, she soon became a favourite of all the teachers, while her fellow students admired her for her striking good looks.

She had a peachy pink complexion that was unusual for a south Indian, long, shining hair and beautiful eyes. That she was an actress’s daughter gave her an added aura of glamour.

Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen; Juggernaut Books; Rs 190.

While the accolades at school made her happy and confident, Jayalalithaa was deeply unhappy that Sandhya was never there to share her joys and her worries. She later wrote in her memoirs that once, after not seeing her mother for two days, she had stayed up late the next night to show her an essay she had written titled "My Mother: What She Means to Me".

The essay had won a prize and the teacher was so pleased with it that she had read it out to all the students.

When Sandhya arrived late that night she saw her daughter fast asleep, with a notebook spread across her chest. As she tried to lift her up, Jayalalithaa woke up and, between tears, said how she had waited for two days to show her the essay. Sandhya sat with her and asked her to read out the essay.

"She patted my cheeks and kissed me saying that it was a beautiful essay. She hugged me and said, 'Sorry, I kept you waiting, it will not happen again.'" But it happened again and again.

Waiting for mother became a habit. Along with it grew disappointment and resentment. And she hated the sight of the film producers and actors who came to the house at odd hours.

As if to escape from an atmosphere she found repugnant, she devoured every book she came across. She had dreams of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Or if she were lucky, enter the Indian Administrative Service. But she was determined to stay far from the cine world.

(Excerpted with permission of Juggernaut Books from Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen by Vaasanthi. Available in bookstores and www.juggernaut.in)


Last updated: December 06, 2016 | 12:54
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